New(ish) steaming method
I offer the following hybrid of Sylvia's Magic Towels and David Snyder's contribution of the SFBI Perforated-Pie-Tin+Ice-Cubes methods. This method has been working spectacularly well. I bake in a small ('mini', so to speak :-) electric wall oven and have never been satisfied with steam. Problem decisively solved.
MATERIALS: I assemble soaking-but-not-dripping wet terry towels on an oven rack, out on the counter, while the oven is heating up, as seen in the pic above. Two small towels overlap each other on top and hang down the sides, between the outermost two rack rungs, right and left. One larger towel (optional? haven't tested) rests folded up on top of the two smaller ones on the rack. The smaller side towels extend down within an inch or 2 above the rack that holds the baking stone (a downsized Emil Henry), and do not hang above the stone, lest drips land on it causing loaf to become glued thereto. Atop the rack and towels is a half-sheet dispo aluminum tray (12"x17" -- a full sheet is 17" x 24" -- but my oven is literally a 'half-oven'), into which six 1/4" holes have been drilled into the bottom at the right and left sides, about 1.5" apart, just above where the towels fold over the rungs and descend down toward the space between the edge of the stone and rack supports. The tray is for ice cubes -- see method below.
METHOD: When the oven is fully heated, just before I transfer the dough from banneton to peel, I slide the toweled rack into the oven and close the door. With the aluminum tray still on the counter, I place ~5 ice cubes along each side, above the drilled holes and leave it there while I de-banneton, slash and slide the loaf onto the stone. Before closing the oven door, I set the ice-cube prepared tray on top of the towels on the top rack. Five minutes later, I resupply the tray with 5 more cubes on each side. Five minutes after that, I don my welder's gloves and remove the entire apparatus - rack, towels and tray - and set it in the sink. Switch to convection bake.
RESULTS: Until I adopted this method, I rarely, and then only spottily, achieved desired gelation of crusts. But this method results in absolutely spectacular crusts and oven spring (above; NB: because it's a small oven, I bake a lot of miches - one big loaf to minimize oven 'on' time. This is Hamelman's Vermont SD w/Increased Whole Grain, as a single big miche). When I opened the door to resupply ice cubes @ 5 minutes the first time I tried this, I got minor steam burns on my hands, such was the steam still in the oven. Indeed, it is possible that those extra cubes aren't needed for the sake of the loaf's crust, but I still add them to assure that the towels remain wet (fire hazard - see below). This turns my oven into a 460˚F sauna.
- WARNING: As any that involves introducing cotton towels into a 500˚F oven, this method presents a significant fire hazard. Make sure to keep the towels WET at all times and monitor such through oven door window.
- I've tried hanging additional towels front and back as well, for "full enclosure", if you will. C'est tres tres effective to be sure, but, (1) they dripped on the stone :-(, and (2) it's a bit messy to remove the apparatus and avoid sweeping the rear, wet towel over surface of the loaf. Not worth it.
- Rather than fold or cut towels to allow them to fall between the rungs of the rack, I took the rack out to the shop and used a grinder to remove the right and left ends of cross-wise (underside) bars that are not needed to support the rack. Blame my Y chromosome. The rack is built like a Russian tank is not significantly weakened by such dismemberment.
- Any number of variations are possible on this and I hope some TFLoafers might explore them. For example, don't drill holes in tray but rest towels on top of it, with some boiling water poured into it? Or no tray at all? I had travertine tile scraps inserted between the rack supports and the right and left walls at one time, but removed them because I thought they were inhibiting oven spring by prematurely drying the crust (a small oven + big miche syndrome). I may re-insert these now, as they'll add extra heat/thermal mass to evaporate water from towels hanging near them.